Film Review: ‘Loving’

Loving Joel Edgerton Ruth Negga
Courtesy of Big Beach Films

Powerful, understated performances from Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga carry director Jeff Nichols' oh-so-sensitive portrait of a mixed-race marriage forbidden in 1958 Virginia.

“The Crime of Being Married.” So read the headline that accompanied photos of Richard Loving, a Southern “white trash” construction worker, and his African-American wife Mildred in the pages of Life magazine. One day — maybe today — audiences will sit down to watch Jeff Nichols’ nobly hatred-proof period romance, “Loving,” which goes nearly the entire first reel before explaining that mixed-race marriages were illegal in the then-segregated Virginia of 1958, and they’ll be surprised to learn what the crime in question was, having already observed and accepted the on-screen couple without the blinders of racial prejudice.

It is from this position of relative enlightenment that Nichols approaches the true story of “the Loving couple,” a film of utmost sensitivity, but not nearly enough outrage, secure in its position vis-à-vis the bigotry that dominated before America’s Civil Rights revolution. Like the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case that identified marriage as an inherent human right, “Loving” is a humble, soft-spoken film, in which no one so much as raises his voice or weeps in the face of undeniable injustice. Though it will inevitably factor heavily in year-end Oscar conversations, Nichols’ film is seemingly less interested in its own glory than in representing what’s right, and though it features two of the best American performances of the past several years, from Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga (neither of whom are American, hailing from Australia and Ethiopia, respectively), its emotional impact derives precisely from how understated they are.

Premiering in Cannes a mere three months after Nichols’ “Midnight Special” screened in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, “Loving” shares more than just Edgerton and the director’s career-long leading man, Michael Shannon (here relegated to a small supporting role as Life photographer Grey Villet), in common with the retro-styled genre movie. In a sense, both play on the notion that humans fear what they don’t understand — and how otherwise innocent people can be forced into a position of living outside the law when society has not yet wrapped its head around their differences. While far from the suspenseful genre-movie tone of “Midnight Special,” “Loving” finds Edgerton’s character living in a state of perpetual fear, fear that he and his wife Mildred could be arrested at any time — or worse, though the film never actually dramatizes the very-real threat of hate-crime violence.

In the half-dozen years since his breakthrough performance in Ozzie crime-family opus “Animal Kingdom,” Edgerton has demonstrated nothing short of full actorly commitment to a series of demanding roles. Until now, what he has never seemed capable of doing is fully relaxing into the skin of another character, and yet, under Nichols’ direction, he disappears into the role of Richard Loving. Behind the tobacco-stained false teeth, the “Sling Blade”-like underbite, the furrowed brow and close-cropped straw hair lives and breathes a simple man whose inner happiness derives from having found his soul mate. Maybe he should have known better, as his mother implies, than to marry a “colored” woman, but there’s no sign that her race plays any part in or obstacle to Richard’s connection to Mildred, whom Negga embodies with a quiet dignity and deep inner strength. (The fact that Mildred is herself part-white raises other unspoken questions about the legitimacy of an anti-miscegenation law.)

Without ever having to “prove” it, these two are clearly very much in love. That alone would make a fine movie, as so many have (“Away We Go” and “Infinitely Polar Bear” come to mind as two solid recent examples, in which almost no mention is made of the fact that its central couples hail from different races). But “Loving” isn’t about loving at all. It’s about the fact that certain kinds of loving were deemed illegal in America’s relatively recent past, and it’s about the way that a handful of eager civil-rights lawyers took their case to the highest court in the land, paving the way for arguments still being waged today — as in the recent overhaul of the Defense of Marriage Act and country-wide legalization of same-sex unions.

Tapping into the same sensitivity Heath Ledger (another Ozzie) brought to “Brokeback Mountain,” Edgerton’s performance captures a side of American masculinity seldom shown on-screen — namely, a certain personal conviction divorced of words that falls silent in the face of conflict and can appear calloused to those who don’t know how to read the body language. Edgerton invites us into that intimate space. In his modesty, Richard may never meet another character’s gaze, and yet Nichols and d.p. Adam Stone (who has shot every one of the director’s five features) find a way to peer into the character’s eyes — and into his soul.

In June 1958, after proposing to Mildred on the acre of rural Virginia country where he plans to build their house, Richard drives his bride-to-be to Washington, D.C., where they elope. But trouble awaits back home, and someone talks to the authorities (true to the film’s policy of telling this story without clear villains, we never learn who the traitor was). Late one night, the local sheriff (Martin Csokas) and his men turn up, knock down the bedroom door and drag the couple to jail — an indignity carried out with any nefarious sneering, but depicted as just part of the job. The Lovings were clearly in violation of Virginia law at the time, and despite their prejudices, both sheriff Brooks and judge Bazile (David Jensen) held attitudes consistent with their communities.

Richard hires a lawyer (Bill Camp, oozing flop sweat), but has no choice but to accept the penalty: leave Virginia and don’t come back with Mildred for 25 years, or face one year’s prison time. Behind their doleful Basset Hound expressions, Richard and Mildred both look sad, but never come out and say as much. Nor do they seem especially angry. At one point, Mildred’s sister (Terri Abney) accuses Richard of causing unnecessary grief to their family, but by and large, this patiently paced, mild-mannered movie unfolds within an extremely narrow emotional range. Nichols even steers clear of the inevitable tensions the Lovings’ situation must have caused within their marriage: They never argue, and even a near-death experience barely seems to upset them.

It’s as if the Lovings consider themselves too small in the grand scheme of things to fight the system, and it’s only after ACLU lawyer Bernie Cohen (comedian Nick Kroll, playing the inexperienced character’s insecurity, rather than his sincerity) calls that they agree to go to court, posing for newsreel interviews and Villet’s camera. “Loving” is so committed to this spirit of low-key respectability — subtly reinforced by David Wingo’s understated string score — that it very nearly skips over the Supreme Court trial, featuring just a few remarks by Cohen and fellow counsel Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass, as superficial as Kroll) before delivering the verdict by telephone. Mildred answers slowly, as if calls were somehow commonplace in the old farmhouse where Richard has only just installed a phone, and she barely reacts to the news. Such humility may be devastating, but it ain’t dramatic, and though we’ve been waiting for this moment the entire movie, the scene underscores “Loving’s” single greatest weakness: It’s too damn polite. Had the same story been told by parties who’d suffered through the same oppression, one doubts they could have played it so cool — nor would they have been quite so convinced the problem ended in 1967.

Film Review: 'Loving'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 16, 2016. Running time: 123 MIN.

Production

A Focus Features release and presentation of a Raindog Films, Big Beach production, in association with August Films, Tri-State Pictures. (International sales: Insiders, Los Angeles.) Produced by Ged Doherty, Colin Firth, Nancy Buirski,  Sarah Green, Marc Turteltaub, Peter Saraf. Executive producers, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Jack Turner, Jared Ian Goldman. Co-producer, Will Greenfield.

Crew

Directed, written by Jeff Nichols, based in part on the documentary “The Loving Story” by Nancy Buirski. Camera (color, widescreen), Adam Stone; editor, Julie Monroe; music, David Wingo; production designer, Chad Keith; art director, Jonathan Guggenheim; set decorator, Adam Willis; costume designer, Erin Benach; sound, Pud Cusack; supervising sound editor, Will Files; re-recording mixers, Files, Brandon Proctor; visual effects supervisor, Phil Crowe; visual effects producer, Chris Harlowe; visual effects, The Mill; special effects supervisor, Gary Pilkinton; assistant director, Cas Donovan; casting, Francine Maisler.

With

Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Marton Csokas, Nick Kroll, Terri Abney, Alano Miller, Jon Bass, Michael Shannon.

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  1. BSH says:

    Look at the true perpective of this Movie , it is what Love should always be. Faith!!!!
    These people taught us all what Faith, Love and Marriage should be. Amen

  2. Ellyn E Algarin says:

    The writer has stated several times that there should be “more outrage”. I do not quite understand this. That was the time and place where this happened. Things have changed for the better, regardless of the liberal crap spewed forth to further divide. Why is a movie never shown how cruel black people can be to a child in the family who is lighter than the rest? OR the dissatisfaction on the part of black people when a white man or woman is brought home to marry? THeses stories have only one color villian. Things are better regardless of the b.s. spread by some. History is repeating itself because people are too stupid to actually learn it or be taught by good teachers who give information without their own views. This Loving couple were in love and were strong dealing with laws that were never removed by people too stupid to remove them. There are many old statutes that are ridiculous, and instead of inciting a riot at the theatre, why dont the states just strike them down?

  3. tlsnyder42 says:

    This review is all of PC, pro-homosexual language. The words Husband and Wife have a Transcendent meaning approved by our Creator God, from whom we derive our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The God of the Bible never outlaws marriage between people of different skin color, but he does define marriage as an heterosexual affair meant to ensure than ay children developed from marriage will have a mother AND a father.

  4. Iamotherearth says:

    The real crime in this story is rape. Mildred was 11 and Richard 17 when he started having relations with her. The story would be different if Richard was black and Mildred was white. Richard would have been executed during that time. This relationship is a crime even today in some states. Would you want your 11 year old child black or white to be having relations with a 17 year old?

    • BSH says:

      lamotherearth may I ask what you truly do know? Because years ago girls were always much younger then men. As a matter of fact every girl whom was with a White guy , the guy was much older and many got pregnate. I know one whom was 16 and married her 23 years old White boyfriend. Even my sister was pregnate and married her husbsnd , she was 17, he was 19. You say that is Rape? You are way off bounds with that determation and or explanation. And you have made several comments out of context. From what I am seeing you are a racist, sadly. I might be wrong I do not think do. I am not perfect.

      • BSH says:

        Let me Correct please! The 16 year old Girl and 23 year old guy, whom got pregnate and married, he had slept with her since she was 13, pretty sad such a young age. It is not so uncommon is it! Excuse my mistakes.

  5. Swieseldoom says:

    If u watched the documentary, you would know that this is how the lovings were.. Over dramaticizing their true natures would make this story another hollywood movie.. Watch it for what its really saying about life rather than saying ( in other words) how they shouldve put more bells and whistles on it.

  6. James M. says:

    Too damn polite? Why does every critic require outrage? isn’t t possible that the Lovings simply weren’t bombastic, angry people?

  7. Macey says:

    Ruth Negga is Irish-Ethopian FYI .

  8. I can’t wait to see this film in November. It reminds me of the new book, HOSANNA by Katelyne Parker, just released in May of this year. This book highlights the historical milestones leading up to the landmark Supreme Court case, Loving vs. Virginia in 1967. Amazing!

  9. cadavra says:

    We’ll know the movie has really struck a chord when Fox News and Limbaugh begin denouncing it.

  10. Shell says:

    I thought the ’96 TV movie, “Mr. and Mrs. Loving” (Timothy Hutton & Lela Rochon) did a very good job telling their story. I hope this movie exceeds that one because that movie was very moving and poignant.

  11. Your description of Richard Loving as “white trash, construction worker ” is appalling, it supports a cultural stereotype. If you regard him as white trash, was Mildred trash as well? They were from the same town….what are you saying? Richard and Mildred Loving were people. Quiet, gentle, everyday folk who were thrust into the throes of activism, and limelight, in preserving the integrity of their relationship. Their story is about integrity, authenticity and loyalty. They were heroes, not trash. Many people, possibly you, would have buckled. The Lovings were a product of their environment. Caroline County is country. I am not saying the town was devoid of racism. When she was 103 years old in the 1990s, my great great aunt, raised in Caroline County referred to “white” and “black” people, so there was a delineation….however, she told me they helped each other raise barns, harvest. A white neighbor sewed her and her twin sister matching dresses. Based on my Hollywood media experiences, regarding race relations in the south, at the time, I thought her perspectives of Caroline County were reflective of possible dementia. After watching the documentary a few years ago, her experiences were generally affirmed. Caroline County was and is a small country town. If you believe the portrayals of the Lovings are not unrealistic, talk to older folk, visit the town, or watch the documentary. Hollywood has helped create stereotypes regarding race relations, social justice, anger, and what it means to win.

    • BSH says:

      Appalling the correct words. I dispise anyone whom calls anyone Trash! What bigots. And I totally agree with your comment. Thank you!

    • Maria Elena Gil says:

      I agree with you Ms. Neal. I hate that term. There’s so much “classism” in America that people are not aware of. I hope raising that consciousness will be next.

    • Ian says:

      I’m not sure but the quotation marks around the term may allude to the how Mr. Loving was described in the Life magazine article that the reviewer was referencing.

    • James M. says:

      Calm down there, trigger-word. No need to be so sensitive.

    • Marie says:

      It is probably how others see him in the film, not how the writer personally feels about the character. Don’t be so sensitive.

  12. Ronnie says:

    This reviewer has probably never seen the documentary about the Lovings. If he did, he would know that the couple was very low key and mild mannered. Yes, we want to be outraged, especially in this day and age, but the couple always had a quiet composure they maintained throughout all they endured. That is who they were.

  13. Sexracist says:

    Our culture is suffering from outrage porn, where the media sensationalizes every slightest suggestion of racism or discrimination, and the hoardes of drooling fools trip over each other on twitter and facebook in a contest to see who can be appalled the loudest, usually without a reasonable grip on facts or rational thinking. Having a film tackle the subject without such self-righteousness sounds refreshing, but of course to media outlets like Variety, who trades explicitly in fanning the flames of the mob (see yesterday’s deluge of stories on every little piece of controversy that boob Sarandon spouted), it is cause for the subtle damnation Debruge weaves into this review.

    • BSH says:

      Seriously if humans do not see the real truths of this Movie! “Loving”. And it causes chaos , then we have truthful lost a entire 50 years of improving our own societies and Americas dreams.
      If that is the intend of this Movie I shall never approve of a Movie that would ever do this again, nor shall many others as needless death will come to many from riots it might cause in our streets.

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